The Martyrdom of Dana Plato
by Phil Bailey
The death of celebrities, especially if they are young, is a cultural phenomenon in this country akin to the death of martyrs in medieval Europe. Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, and JFK have all become martyrs for Americans. The public grieving and relic collecting know no bounds of taste or common sense. The public grief displayed over the death of a person that most of these people grieving have never met is astonishing. But people feel they know them. Their exploits are broadcast into our homes every day, but far too often, what we are seeing is not them, but a character they are playing, either one dreamed up in the head of a scriptwriter, or the charade of a public life they concoct with their agent so they look good during public events.
Disbelief is often suspended to the point we actually believe we know these people and mourn their passing as we would a family member. In death, many find their celebrity increased far beyond the scope they ever enjoyed in life. Princess Diana, Jimi Hendrix, and now, Dana Plato. The true tragedy of her death is that it finally gave her the fame she strove so hard to attain in life.
If we had secular saints, Dana Plato could easily be canonized as the Patron Saint of Day Late and Dollar Short. She could be a source of inspiration for anyone who has chased an ever-elusive dream only to see it twinkling, just out of reach. Dana's quest, her Shangri-La, was fame. Fame was a drug more addictive than any chemical combination. Fame was her quest from a very young age. She got a small taste at a young age, and never seemed able find it again. The tragedy of her life was her self-destructive path to get back to the fame. A path that almost ensured her not getting the fame she wanted so badly.
Dana Plato's career started as a small girl, when she began working in commercials under the guidance of her adoptive mother, Kay. Kay Plato was a stage mother who made Gypsy Rose Lee's mother look uninterested in show business. From the age of six, Dana was doing commercials and training as a figure skater with Olympic aspirations. Dana's first shot at fame came when she auditioned for (and reportedly won) the role of Reagan in William Friedkin's The Exorcist .
Dana Plato played many roles during her time in the public eye, both on and off camera. She was a goody two-shoes TV character, a Playboy model, an armed robber, a junkie, and in her final shot at fame, a martyr. The cause of her death was quite simple, a deadly mixture of Valium and Lortab. What isn't so simple is why. The police originally decided her death was an accidental overdose, but the coroner put suicide as cause of death, based mostly on old scars from an earlier suicidal gesture. But why would she commit suicide? Shane Bugbee, in his book, Dana Plato's Last Breath , raises more sinister accusations. He raises the specter of murder.
Kay Plato decided the part in The Exorcist wouldn't be good for Dana and turned it down. Shrewd! Linda Blair got the role, and the film struck a nerve and became a major box office hit, and ultimately, a classic film. A few years later, Dana won a small role in the uproariously bad sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic . This is Dana's career and life in microcosm -- bad choices and poor second-place finishes. Even her high point of fame was as a secondary character, working in the not-so-long shadow of Gary Coleman on Diff'rent Strokes .
Her character of Kimberly never seemed to mesh in the show. She was there mostly to say the bathroom is vacant, or to cast a disapproving eye to the schemes of Arnold and Willis, but was never given much to do. She was even written out of the show when she became pregnant with her son, Tyler. She was 19 at the time, playing far under her age for years on the show. After Diff'rent Strokes ended, the silence was deafening. It would have made sense for her to have moved with Charlotte Rae to the spin-off, The Facts of Life , but that didn't happen, and Dana was soon forgotten.
In 1989, hoping to shed her teeny-bopper image, Dana shed her clothes for Playboy . In typical Dana Plato fashion, the issue was also the Playmate of the Year issue for the current Mrs. Hugh Hefner, Kimberly Conrad, and Dana got little attention. But her recognition was soon to pass in a bizarre manner that would begin the end of her life. Plato claims, in her famous interview with Howard Stern just before her death, that she qualified for the Olympics as a figure skater, but Kay Plato thought Diff'rent Strokes was a better career move. Very Dana. Feeding a drug addiction that started when she was on Diff'rent Strokes , Dana found herself arrested twice in 1991. Once for forging Valium prescriptions, and most famously, the armed robbery of a Las Vegas video store. Her shot at becoming a bankable adult star was slim at best, but it was now out of the question. Everyone seemed to know that except Dana Plato. She languished on the fringes for the next few years, battling addiction, occasionally appearing in supermarket tabloids. She just could never get that fame monkey off her back. She found scant work cashing in on her status as a former child star. The work was always about combining her name with her naked or scantily clad body. When she made the soft core porn film Diff'rent Strokes: A Story of Jack and Jill and Jill , the final nail was driven into her legit career, and probably her life.
In 1999, Dana Plato was living with her fiance, Robert Menchaca, and had been living in an RV park in Navarre, Florida. Dana was priming the pump for another shot at the big time that included an interview with Howard Stern. She made the interview, and was dead two days later.
Since her death, Web sites have been popping up all over the electronic landscape. Writers are furiously cranking out books. Ebay is jammed with people buying and selling Dana memorabilia, and the revision of her history has begun.
The total lack of an investigation is troubling. The police took Menchaca's account of what happened as gospel, even though it was apparent that Plato had been dead for hours before he phoned the police. Even more troubling was that the police confiscated Polaroids he took of Plato as she laid dead or dying. The police determined death was accidental overdose, the medical examiner determined suicide based on old scars at her wrist. Good work, Quincy! You and Sheriff Lobo there in Moore, Oklahoma should be real proud. Let's see: Dana was attempting a comeback; was in Oklahoma to be with her son for Mother's Day, and it looked very much like she was going to leave Robert Menchaca. Add to the mix Dana's mother-in-law, a nurse, who recommended Dana try Lortab, even though she knew Dana was using Valium and the deadly combination of the two drugs. Menchaca was attempting to ride the gravy train of a Dana Plato revival, and with Plato leaving him out of her trip to New York to appear on Howard Stern, it looked like he was about to be cut out of the picture. He may have decided he could profit more from a dead, martyred Dana Plato than a live one hoping to get parts in international market sex thrillers, or making the talk show circuit. It's hard to imagine you could be in the extremely close confines of a small RV and not know your girlfriend was dead. Especially when she had a history of suicidal gestures, and drug problems, including a Valium OD when she was fourteen.
She was laid over in Dallas trying to meet him in Oklahoma City. Did Dana Plato die because of insane jealousy? Would this non-investigation of this death have happened in New York or Los Angeles or St. Louis? Would a city with a murder rate in the top 20 have just taken the deceased's boyfriend's word for what happened? Did these small town cops just assume some drug addict got what she had coming? Did Robert Menchaca get away with the perfect murder? Was Menchaca just an idiot who couldn't tell his fiancée was dead? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Was Marilyn Monroe murdered? Or was it suicide? Did Dana Plato simply give up?
The mystery of her death will forever make Dana Plato a name people will remember. The revisionists are hard at work building her into the greatest and most beloved actress of a generation. She is fast becoming a tragic figure and a martyr. A saint for the disillusioned. The Internet will keep the legend growing. Suicide, OD, Murder. Does it really matter why she died? The truth is, millions of dollars will continue to be spent on Princess Diana's incredibly straightforward death as the media tries to hunt down elusive Fiats, unable to accept she died because she got into a car with a drunk driver. But the mainstream media is all too eager to simply accept that Dana Plato took too many sleeping pills and died, end of story. With new books, Web sites, and a new documentary on The E! True Hollywood Story , maybe some investigation of her death may occur.
Until then, keep the flame burning, and keep the dream alive. The Patron Saint of Failed Dreams may finally become really famous, and truly loved. Or just another checkmark in Hollywood's book of ruined lives.